Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity. Ephesians 4:26-27
In the story of The Devil and Daniel Webster by Stephen Vincent Benet, the main plot centers around a man named Jabez Stone, a farmer in New Hampshire who is down on his luck. His wife and children are ailing, his field is not producing crops, and his horses suddenly become ill. He is so depressed with his lot that, although he is a religious man, he vows he would sell his soul to the devil to improve his wretched fortunes. Naturally the devil shows up the very next day in the guise of a well-dressed and soft-spoken lawyer fitly named Scratch. The pact is made. Jabez experiences seven years of prosperity, after which he persuades the devil to grant him an extension of three more years. At the end of the decade Jabez, in desperation, asks Daniel Webster, a fellow New Hampshire man, to take on his legal case and defend him.
Jabez Stone is a decent though desperate man. When he realizes that his request may endanger the soul of the great orator, Daniel Webster, he pleads with his would-be savior to leave before the devil gets him. Webster, however, in many ways a man of similar nature—an educated and rhetorical version of the down-to-earth farmer—asserts that he has never left either a case or a jug unfinished. He stays on the case, remaining calm even when the devil shows the little black box with air holes in the lid in which he carries the souls of people he has bought.
Webster begins the case by insisting on an all-American jury. "Let it be the quick or the dead!" The members of the jury selected by the devil are a gallery of traitors and criminals, all actual figures from American history, including such notables as the pirate Teach and the cruel governor Dale, who broke men on the wheel. The judge, fittingly, is Hawthorne, who presided at the witch trials in Salem and never repented of the convictions.
Webster's appeal to the jury is brilliant. At first the doughty lawyer simply "got madder and madder," determined to "bust out with lightening’s and denunciations." But as he stares at the wild glitter in the eyes of these repugnant souls, he realizes that would be a mistake, playing right into the hands of the devil himself. Instead, he decides to address them as men, the men that they were rather than the damned that they have become.
He does not condemn or revile but instead talks about what makes a man a man. He speaks so movingly that the diabolic glitter disappears from the eyes of the jurors, who seem to return to being simply men once more. At the close of the trial, Walter Butler, the loyalist terrorist of the Revolution, delivers the verdict, astonishing the devil by finding for the defendant.
In Ephesians 4:13 Apostle Paul reminds us that we are “… called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”
To live in the full measure of the freedom God has given us means to live a spirit-filled life in the power and love of Christ. As one reads the 4th chapter of Ephesians, Paul reminds us that we need to put off the old self, the old nature, and start living as a new creation. One of the traits that Paul exhorts us that we can be free from is the propensity for anger.
Paul’s first words in verse 26, “Be angry, and yet do not sin” echo Psalm 4:4. Does it surprise you that the Bible allows us – in both Testaments – to get angry? Anger is mentioned often in Proverbs – like in 14:29 & 16:32:
He who is slow to anger has great understanding,
But he who is quick-tempered exalts folly.
One who is slow to anger is better than the
And one who rules his spirit, than one who captures a city.
Now Paul and David didn’t have in mind temper tantrums but righteous anger that directs its rage at the appropriate object – sin and sinful behavior, not sinners. And it’s expressed for the right reason – to defend God’s righteous standards, not to avenge personal grievances. A perfect example of this is Jesus driving the money-changers from the temple because they had turned God’s house into a place for personal profit. (See also Mark 3:1-5).
Unfortunately, we more often than not, become angry because others fail to give us what we want. They may not give us the full measure of respect we feel we deserve, they may inconvenience us, or they may hurt our feelings. Whatever the cause, our anger often stems from selfish desires, not holy vigilance.
So, the Lord is urging us to guard against impure motives and harmful expressions of our anger. In fact, Paul counsels us, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Don’t brood on it or hold a grudge. Understandably, not all conflicts can be resolved before bedtime; sometimes we may need to take a breather in the process of working matters out. The key is to continue to move toward resolving our issues so we aren’t stuck in our anger.
The danger is, if we string out our conflicts, like our story above, as Daniel Webster realized in the nick of time, we can “give the devil an opportunity” to drive a wedge between us and those who we care about. And the devil will use that wedge to bring divisions into the church, as well as into our personal lives.
But God offers us a different way. He has designed the path of freedom to be traveled in peace, by a people (the church) united and empowered by love.
The goal then is a simple one for us to work toward:
“Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” Eph. 4:31-32